Impermanence and Contradiction

Date: 24 May 20123
Author: Alejandra Chacra – Urban Environmental Systems Management

After several weeks of studying, reading, and researching Japanese history, culture, and architecture, we are ready to let ourselves be surprised with the magic of this city and country. Everything we’ve studied so far has opened our minds to a completely new and different culture, and has given us a wide understanding of it; but I believe it is not until we live and experience the city space that we are going to be able to capture its essence. As Roland Barthes says, it is only by walking, sight, habit, and experience that we will get to orient ourselves in the city: “It can be repeated or recovered only by memory of the trace it has left in you” (Barthes, 1982).

I am really interested in observing and understanding the process of change in Tokyo, the feeling of timeless impermanence and temporal consideration. Japanese architecture has a short life cycle, based on a social system that guarantees change. Houses in Japan have a 26 year life expectancy as they are constantly demolished and rebuilt; this is not only seen in architecture, but it is also expressed in Japan’s social context. “Impermanence is built into the Japanese psyche and is bolstered by the confidence that something better will come along soon. That the Japanese are exhilarated by the new and driven by a need of continuous improvement is shown in matters ranging from custom play of teenage girls to rampant manufacturing successes” (Greco, 2007). The temporal consideration is the result of a history of constant reconstruction due to different disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and war; there is a capacity for regeneration when damaged and this capacity has permeated many areas of Japanese culture.

Another aspect of Japanese culture that has captured my attention is the phenomenon of opposites and contradictions. From what we have been studying I feel that this city and its culture is full of contradictions: between simplicity and complexity; order and disorder; structure and chaos; sacred and profane; old and new. This can be seen in fashion, architecture, lifestyle, and city space. Simple and elegant kimonos vs exaggerated custom play, traditional architecture vs Western architecture, Zen center vs amorphous sprawl, peaceful interior spaces vs chaotic streets, Japanese-ness vs Westernization. I feel completely fascinated by the way these opposites influence so many aspects of Japanese life.

I speak for myself, but I believe the whole group is very excited about getting to know this amazing culture, to try to decipher the “labyrinthine city of Tokyo, apparently built without order, hierarchy or form” (Sacchi, 2004). Understanding a completely different culture from our Western perspective will open our eyes and our mind to another way of doing things.

Barthes, R. (1982) Empire of Signs. London: Reaktion Press.
Greco, J. (2007, July). Building a New Tokyo. Urban Land.
Sacchi, L. (2004). Tokyo: City and Architecture. New York: Universe (Rizzoli).

New apartment blocks looming above a roji. James Lloyd, 25 May 13.


One thought on “Impermanence and Contradiction

  1. In reading these posts I am struck that while pretty much everything is new, different, and exciting none of you have expressed any sort of “culture shock”. Clearly the time you took to learn and study played a big role in this – you are travelers and researchers – not tourists. So much of this experience will stay with you throughout your career and hopefully contribute to affecting sensitive and creative change to the urban form in North America.


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